Keep the Best, Delete the Rest

Keep the Best, Delete the Rest

A guest post by Lara White from PhotoMint.

It’s the one of those things that holds many photographers back. Each time you create a set of images, it’s more like a blooper reel than a best hits collection unless you cull them ruthlessly. Your image library grows and grows, each set containing hundreds of images, the best ones hiding in there somewhere amongst the slop. Sound familiar?

Culling your best work is absolutely critical to your growth as a photographer. That means getting in there and separating the wheat from the chaff” so to speak-be ruthless. It’s hard work to throw away your work, especially for an artist. But in order to learn from your mistakes and grow as a photographer, it must be done. It’s one of the very best ways to learn about your strengths and weaknesses photographically.

Why deleting is different than reviewing

Everyone looks at their work and thinks about what they like and don’t like. But until you make an actual decision about each image-is it the very best image, is it good (but not great) or was it just practice-you won’t open yourself up to the learning that comes when you actively force yourself to separate the best from the throwaways.

By making decisions about what works and what doesn’t, you begin to train your eye. As an example, let’s say you are looking at a dozen good images of a landscape, each one slightly different. By comparing and contrasting several good photos, some are better, some are worse. One image is going to be the best. And everything other image is not the best, and therefore inferior in some way.

Which one is the best, and how do you know? With this question in mind, you are forced to look at the little details in a new way. Maybe one has better exposure or slightly better composition. It might be in the details, and you have to look carefully, but that’s where you’ll find your greatness-in the little things.

Your work starts to improve

You’ll begin to see when you really “got it” and what led to that moment, understanding and learning more from the images before and after that one great shot. You’ll see what wasn’t working-was there too much sky or not enough sky? Next time, you’ll compose a little bit better. You’ll remember what you liked. You’ll spend a little less time creating images that you know won’t work.

You’ll start spending more time creating images that are better. Each time you’ll be able to duplicate a little more of what worked and spend less time on shots that don’t work.

Another benefit to editing images is that your portfolio instantly improves as you remove the uninspiring images. You don’t want the throwaways, the garbage, and the mediocre images crowding out the gems. Sift through and delete images that are unexceptional so that great images have a chance to shine. Allow none of the uninspired images to slip through. You don’t really want to show off your average work now, do you?

Learning to see-perspective and composition

Perspective and composition are two key areas that I have improved over the years due to ruthlessly culling images. Each editing or culling session is a lesson in learning what separates a great image from an ordinary image.

dessert table overview.jpg

For example, in the dessert table overview image, it’s pretty much a straight on shot of the table. It doesn’t work because it’s boring, it doesn’t entice the viewer and it doesn’t create any desire for the desserts. There is too much wall and not enough yum.

What did I do wrong in composing the image? The perspective is too high. I need to get lower, at eye level with the desserts. And in order to make the desserts appetizing, they need to seem larger than life.

Compositionally, this means that I would choose a specific dessert and allow it to take up more space in the frame. Finally, so the image doesn’t feel cluttered by too many desserts, I use a low f stop and focus only on one dessert, allowing the rest to become background.

dessert table closeup.jpg

I didn’t learn this instinctively, and I didn’t even learn it at the shoot. The dessert table overview shot actually felt more appropriate, it captured the scene truthfully and was a straightforward shot. But there is nothing unique or interesting about that image. It’s the same as anyone would take with a point and shoot.

As photographers, I believe it’s our job to say something with the images, to add something more than just what meets the eye. I learned this more in the editing room than on any shoot. The editing or culling process allows me to see what works and why. And even more important, I learn what doesn’t work.

So hopefully you are convinced of the tremendous value in editing down your work to only the best. It’s one of the fastest ways to improve the quality of your photography work. And who doesn’t want to take better images?

Lara White is a professional photographer and author. For more tips on improving the quality of your images, download PhotoMint’s free ebook: Get Published: A Guide for Wedding Photographers. For more marketing and business tips for photographers, check out PhotoMint.

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Some Older Comments

  • Jofoto May 1, 2012 07:00 am

    Totally agree Lara, more time for important business, who want's a load of blinks or multiple shots of the same item, pick the best ditch the rest.

  • tonyjr April 30, 2012 02:51 am

    Marco - I agree with you .
    I guess if this logic was applied to my yard — I would remove all the non perfect leaves and flowers .
    Oh well , the people who do the heavy culling of their shots and later go looking for a shot = might remember these posts .
    Now if you are just shooting in a studio or weddings for money - you will probably never sell more after a few months .
    This is where I think pros suck . Rather than create a whole bunch of good will by burning a CD / DVD and sending to parents - they just delete . A water mark on each shot with phone number / name - you cannot buy that kind of advertising .
    What do I do ?
    I go to a wedding , 1st communion , baptism , party , anniversary , even funerals - you name it - My Mac is with me and I borrow the memory card from anyone I can , copy today shots to drive . Then burn a DVD [ used to be CD's , but everyone has a phone or camera these days . ] I end up mailing a lot - almost always a get together after .
    What do I get out of it ?
    1st - addresses phone numbers of relatives - I have on a spread sheet in excel
    2nd - almost everyone knows my name .
    3rd - sometimes someone says here is 5 / 10 dollars - please send me a copy .
    4th - I get invited to everything .
    1st - I have 12 hard drives - will be getting another next time I am at Micro center or Frys
    2nd - I get invited to everything
    3rd - will you shoot - wedding , 1st communion , baptism , party , anniversary , even funerals , graduation ? NO
    4th - I go thru a lot of DVD's
    5th - going thru at least 200 shots of each event for shots I want takes time .
    6th - would you email me the list of names of family - so and so is getting married / what ever .

  • marty golin April 28, 2012 03:14 am

    Ruthless culling takes ruthless viewing. As noted in several comments above, culling too soon after a shot is difficult since the emotion we felt may be too strongly affecting us. This leads to extended time gives more objectivity. For most images, I'm on board with that.

    However conversely, sometimes (admittedly not a majority of the time), if a long time passes, our vision changes enough so that what was originally viewed as marginal now strikes us differently & maybe much better. At least for me, "tendencies" (for lack of a better word) sometimes appear in my photos that are not conscious decisions. & after a few of these unintended characteristics appear, then I begin to consciously recognize them. Then at that point I can begin to incorporate & enhance them, or consciously avoid them.

    There is an equal ruthlessness required to see beyond what we consciously create. Deleting too much takes away much of the data required to recognize things we SIMPLY BY HABIT skip over . I believe a stroll through old "marginal" images every few months enhances this process. File them away somewhere, but don't delete them.

  • Marco April 27, 2012 05:08 pm

    I totally disagree with this concept. When I get back from a shoot, I will clean up by deleting any that are for sure garbage (out of focus, to dark to bring back, shots of my foot, etc) and then wait a few days to thin the remainders. I often shoot in bursts since I shoot wildlife action shots. My second pass will try to find the best two or three of a burst and do this to all of the similar series of shots. At this point I will then choose the ones to edit and these edited shots get renamed and stored elsewhere. Once this is done, I store the out of camera originals (RAW format) by date on an archive hard drive (currently 1 TB drive). Next I wait a few days and review the ones I edited selecting only the best to be copied into a folder named "Top Shots" and these are the only ones anyone ever sees. I also keep a look out for shots that can be copied into my "Portfolio" folder which I limit to twelve shots at any time. If I get an exceptional shot, it goes into the portfolio and something else must be removed. Then all of my system is backed up to another drive weekly by schedule and manually when I finish editing a shoot.

    Is all of this a lot of drive space? YOU BETCHA!!! But drives are so cheap today, it is insane to delete so harshly. This way I never run into the "Monica" story above and I can watch the top shots folder over time to see how my camera and editing skills are advancing. And during the winters, I often will go back to the Top shots folder to find some of the older ones that I think have more potential, check the date taken on the file and find the original, out of camera shot, on the Archive Drive and re-edit it with my new editing skills to see if I can improve it. The difference is often amazing. I have also many times found that the archive materials can be used as part of a new composite image in ways that many cannot imagine until they advance enough in editing. Remember to always identify composite images ethically.

    The best part of the system is the backup drive. You can always count on a hard drive to fail and having a backup of your whole system is a life saver when that happens! I just had a 1 TB drive fail under warranty and when the new one arrives it will be really easy to reinstate my system! With 2 TB drives that are USB 3.0 costing as little as US $130, why would anyone delete images??? Archive them yes, but to totally delete why? If I am in an archive folder a year or so after taking them and I now decide some are rubbish, then it is time to delete, but not before then.

  • Deji April 27, 2012 02:04 pm

    Great post in terms of giving encouragement to do something I know ought to do but resist doing. I find I get so attached to every single pixel I capture. The example photograph really illustrate an over arching principle of de-cluttering.

    De-clutter drives of old photo, compose your shots when you take them to declutter of too many elements, crop when you are editing to de-clutter; in order to introduce FOCUS.


  • tonyjr April 27, 2012 10:11 am

    I disagree . The shots of lens cap , sky and my foot and obvious blurs are deleted .
    The dark shot with Aunt Susie in back ground is an example . She died a few weeks later .
    I go to weddings , parties , baptisms and 1st communions all the time .
    Did you get a shot of so-and-so ? No one has his / her picture .
    A bad shot is better than no shot .
    Of course I take pictures as a hobby .
    I don't know how many books that say - keep that raw shot - you might be able to fix with next update .
    Looking at bad shots and figuring out why you don't like and making changes - sure - but deleting no - you already know how to delete .
    Just get a bigger hard drive and better labeling system .

  • Lara White April 25, 2012 01:59 pm

    James, you are so right. Those of us who "grew up" on digital were never trained that it costs a $1 every time you push the button, so it's easy to just click and click and click. Better to sharpen your skills and be a bit more decisive.

  • Catherine April 25, 2012 05:23 am

    I upload all my photos and then delete the really obviously bad ones. Often leave the maybes but really should get rid of more since they take up so much storage space.

  • Joe Smithson April 23, 2012 05:56 am

    Just word of caution... I separate my photos into groups, such as "good", "best", and "trash". Due to the "miracles of photoshop, I have been pleasantly surprised to find a few treasures in the "trash". You never know when a small area of an otherwise dull or bad photograph can be manipulated with software to create a great image. This is true especially when looking for images used for a one or two second space in a video creation.

  • James - Wedding Photographer Adelaide April 22, 2012 11:52 am

    Hmm this is very true. I won't tell you how many terabytes of data I have backed up.

    On a somewhat similar note, I had the opportunity to see another photographer work recently and I was fascinated to see how many fewer photos he took in a day than I do. I had always had a click-happy finger which meant culling out of thousands later. Just reducing the number of shots you take in a day (not so you miss important moments of course) saves a lot of time and storage.

  • Marcus Davis April 22, 2012 01:56 am

    After having my computer hard drive and my external hard drive both crash within a week of each other last summer, I have a very difficult time completely deleting anything. I use Carbonite to back up my images and also have a new external hard drive. I feel a little bit safer with deleting things from my computer's hard drive.

    That being said, I like to rank my pictures from 5 stars down to 3 stars. 5 stars will go up on my blog and facebook page. 4 stars, I'll work on when I have the time to see if I can get them to 5 stars. 3 stars is marginal and anything that couldn't get up to 3 stars in the first viewing is usually blurry, has bad exposure or composition and gets deleted right away.

    I liked this article, as did most other people. I really liked the close up of the desserts as well. Great picture.


  • Marissa April 21, 2012 02:29 pm

    Like the others, I start sorting and deciding the keepers, from the maybes, to the tossers. One thing though, nothing sits on my hardrive longer then a day or two after the initial upload, especially with the size of RAW images. Everything is exported over to my external drives for backup and the editing begins there. This way all my images are already backed up in the event of a harddrive crash or unfortunate virus (learned that the hard way.) Once the editing is done, the final files are then transfered to a secondary external drive. And around once a month or so my OCD kicks in to clean the trashed images from the 1st external. I have yet to fill up either TB external, but I think that has more to do with cleaning and organization then anything else.

  • Carlee April 21, 2012 11:48 am

    I am constantly "click, click, clicking" during a wedding or photo shoot. I end up with so many images that are essentially the same, but with a few slight differences. I agree with this article - it's definitely good to through your images every once in a while and delete what you haven't/don't think you'll use. Though it can be tough! Your hard drive will thank you too haha. Thanks!

  • Trisha April 21, 2012 08:38 am

    I agree 100% and need to work on this more. Great advice Lara!

  • Pete Stean April 21, 2012 07:01 am

    Thanks Lara, I do try to be hard on myself and I am more comfortable about deleting the less successful images these days. However, sometimes being really hard on myself would mean that my photo album for the day remained empty...

  • Michelle Walker April 21, 2012 05:24 am

    Get rid of the crap! A bad photograph will never get better... no matter how many Photoshop actions you apply.

  • Sam Levy April 21, 2012 04:20 am

    I can't agree more... It's a great article... along the lines of this earlier one:

  • WARREN PARIS April 21, 2012 04:19 am

    Further tips. use asymmetrical composition, look at AP photos and news magazines for how they use photos to get attention, use Golden Mean theory in your images and for a timeless image have them contain elements that have a Theory pf Opposition. That is an object or element that interrupts the flow or a object that would not normally be present.

  • Lara White April 21, 2012 03:21 am

    Fuzzypiggy, that is the right attitude! A mindset of hating to hoard the rubbish is the best way to look at it. It's clear that you whole-heartedly agree, because every image in your portfolio is a stunner!

  • EnergizedAV April 21, 2012 01:43 am

    Thanks, for a good article.
    If it is a bad picture of a person, I'll delete in camera immediately. I will not allow a bad photo to be seen or used. If it is of nature or of non people, it will be categorized into sellable, promotional, or even to be cut up for embellishments.

  • wedding photographer Toronto April 21, 2012 12:18 am

    completely agree with these points in the article. Furthermore you dont want to show your week images as well as occupy your hard drive with something that you will never use!

  • Vi@Travel Tips April 21, 2012 12:08 am

    The first day I come back from my trip I am deleting half of the pictures taken during trip. Then I'll wait for a week and deleted another 50% of pictures left from previous. It is long process, but after couple of such iteration you are left with 10-15% of pictures you started and the ones you want to keep.
    You can't clean everything on the first day, because you just came from the trip and too many emotions in selecting pictures and everything is too fresh to do it properly.

  • Fuzzypiggy April 20, 2012 10:41 pm

    I sort my images as soon as I get home, bin the easy to spot rubbish. I then ignore them for a day or two, then I will start editing them. If I rush into editing I find I make mistakes and rush the work. Leaving it for a couple of days means I come back to them with fresh eyes and a clear head. Over the course of 2-3 months I'll sort the the real keepers, say 5 in every 2-300 throw the rest in the bin. I hate keeping loads of rubbish shots, a complete waste of space hoarding bucket loads of RAW files you know you will probably never go back to. I edit what I have, store JPG dumps in a gallery for easy access and uploading. The PSDs and DNGs are stored and mirrored on a pair of 8TB network attached storage devices forever and a day in case I want to go back to them at some point in the future. Out of 6 years of serious shooting I have a total of about 900 images I am really proud of, say another 500 shots of things I might use again, likes skies or funny objects but not complete images. I hate hoarding rubbish!

  • Peter Kingsbury April 20, 2012 10:01 pm

    My preference is (and this comes from a "Lightroom Crash Course" I watched recently) to flag "yes" or "no" or not at all.

    "No" Images get deleted; these can be anything from crummy composition, to unsalvageable lighting, to "there is a better one", to unacceptable quality when attempting a particularly artistic shot.

    "Yes" images are the ones which garner most of my attention, make their way to prints/family/National Geographic contests, etc. You all know which ones these are ;) These images are the fewest, and are stored in RAW (as well as any number of derivative formats for web, print, Photoshopping, etc).

    "Not at all" images are the ones which go unflagged, that I feel I might come back to later. However, I don't deem them "editable" in the normal sense; I will flatten these to JPEG, and even perhaps reduce their size, such that they don't take a lot of disk space.

    I hate deleting images, so I suppose if you're smart about storage, keeping the "not at all" images indefinitely becomes a possibility.

  • ajsuk April 20, 2012 08:52 pm

    Some good points. There's definitely plenty of duds I should get rid of and it'd probably help train my eye no end. Having said that, it is sometimes tricky deciding on those "maybe" shots. It's also worth considering how far and fast PP software has come, photos that have been scrapped a couple of years ago may well of been rescued today.

  • steve slater April 20, 2012 05:51 pm

    It is difficult to delete images. Some become obviously not so good as your skills improve. I keep trying to delete some of mine but then someone else says they like them so i hold back. I think at the end of the day if you want to appeal to buyers then you have to be a bit ruthless.

    Perspective and composition - definately:

  • Mridula April 20, 2012 05:40 pm

    I agree with the post. But instead of one image I keep a group of related images and use them as a photo feature on my blog. But I have to give it a try that if I had 5-10 images of a similar scene I would try and choose one!

  • JohnP April 20, 2012 04:51 pm

    I work on the basis if an image doesn't immediately grab me as special when I come back to it after a few days since editing it I delete it. I therefore don't keep many but I find that makes me strive to do better.

  • Nabruneau April 20, 2012 04:42 pm

    Since I am new to photography I realized early on that the I had the ability to take far more photos then I would ever have time to edit. I set my self a limit for how many photos I am willing to back up and have been holding my self to it and I am actually including the shots of family and friends in that number. I really don't need to keep 10 pictures Of my wife cutting her cake!

  • Lara White April 20, 2012 03:29 pm

    Jeanie, I also sort by a yes, no, maybe system. All the "no's" and "maybes" are never truely killed off-they just never get processed, renumbered or make it through to the collection. Basically, they never see the light of day, but could always be dug up two years later if I do happen to realize I've got a "Monica Lewinsky" type of shot. This gives you the best of both worlds, in my opinion.

  • Mei Teng April 20, 2012 03:27 pm

    Totally agree. Limiting yourself to only the best images is one of the ways to improve. Nowadays, I don't just shoot but with a more conscious effort in improving the quality of images in camera whilst limiting the quantity (number of shots).

  • Lara White April 20, 2012 03:13 pm


    You could always store backups of all RAW files so if you ever felt the need to go back-if you get that "Monica Lewinsky" shot, you would know that you could go through old archives in the "vault" some day. It's hard to let go, I completely understand. But as your collection grows and grows (and grows) it can weigh you down and keep you from moving forward in your growth, in my opinion. I think this is particularly true for people that go pro and need to deal with the volume of files and images as part of their work.

  • Rick Mays April 20, 2012 02:08 pm

    I really really want to follow the advise in this article. However, if you read "Moments in Time" by Dirk Halstead, you will quickly see the other side of the coin. Two years after he shot Monica Lewinski hugging President Clinton at a political event, the "boring image" became one of the most viewed images ever captured.

  • Kartik April 20, 2012 01:50 pm

    It depends, you may want to keep all the expressions of your kid for example, you may never know you might be creating a video of all those you wish you had kept.

    Or probably your cat trying to grab the moon:

  • Tom H April 20, 2012 12:18 pm

    I tend to carry out this process without permanently 'deleting' photos. I have what I call a "Keepers" folder. It's for those few images I feel at the end of a shoot are worth displaying. I whack them up on flickr, facebook, whatever it may be. The others sit in in my 'shoot' folders almost never to be looked at. I occasionally go back and have a flick through to see how I've 'grown' as a photographer. Most of the time I go back and laugh at how my style has changed and what posessed me to shoot some of them.

  • Elizabeth April 20, 2012 12:16 pm

    Hello, I love this post. Great information that I will definitely use. I stick all of my photos in one folder when I upload them and they are a mix of family fun and business. I guess I should go through and separate them.

  • raghavendra April 20, 2012 12:14 pm

    In case of deleting the pictures, can do some post production works.
    And opinions differ one may like and other may not like

  • John K April 20, 2012 11:49 am

    It was a hard lesson..... But I deleted 56,000 shots last month and it felt so good.

  • David April 20, 2012 11:33 am

    My first pass through of images after import into Lightroom is to delete the bad, blurry, not what I meant etc. the next pass I mark the images I like and move them to a sub collection called picks. Each collection has its own picks folder. I then go through and edit my picks. I then go through the picks and pick a dozen or so I like for my portfolio picks.

  • JohnP April 20, 2012 10:27 am

    Yes your point is very well illustrated by the difference in those two photos. I find also it helps to leave an image for a while (days, weeks if there is time) and come back to it fresh. I find when editing an image it is sometimes hard to maintain perspective, sometimes when you come back to it you can see straight away if the image will work or not.

  • Jeanie April 20, 2012 10:00 am

    I tend to sort my photos into 3 sub folders, YES, NO, MAYBE. If I have enough in yes I can automatically delete the other 2 folers. That helps straight away. After reading your point of view I might cull further and only keep the amazing ones. Makes total sense, thank you.

  • Scottc April 20, 2012 07:12 am

    I agree with these points, but I would be cautious of deleting photos that have potential with a little effort later on.

    I was going to tank this one, but held on to it and did some cropping, etc., later and it turned out to be worth posting.

  • Joanne Marshall April 20, 2012 06:45 am

    Now that's a scary idea! I've noticed that my hard drive is getting really full, and most of the photos are okay but not great. I'm going to try to force myself to start clearing out the "okay" photos.

    Of course, the "okay" photos with some sentimental value -- family events, etc., will stay. I can't bring myself to get rid of them yet.

    Thank you for this article, and for the dessert table example.